20 Days, 20 Cities, 6 Countries - Part 12: Cinque Terre, Italy

October 27, 2017
Cinque Terre, Italy: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Monterosso, Corniglia, Vernazza by Posh, Broke, & Bored

A city a day keeps the wanderlust at bay...
20 DAYS. 20 CITIES. 6 COUNTRIES.
AUSTRIA • SLOVENIA • BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA • CROATIA • MONTENEGRO  ITALY

PART 12, DAY 19: CACTUS CATASTROPHE IN CINQUE TERRE, ITALY

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There is quite literally a danger in paradise. If I thought that nearly drowning in Plitvice Lakes National Park, having a dress zipper split in Split (of course), and breaking my suitcase as well as losing my favourite hat in Dubrovnik were the end of my mishaps on this trip I had another thing coming. 😫  It was the penultimate day of my 20 Days in 20 Cities and 6 Countries road trip, and naturally the Gods of Misfortune had saved the best for (almost) last. But before I delve into what was the most epic accident of my Summer holidays, allow me to first lull you into the same sense of serenity and wonder that Cinque Terre did with her breathtaking beauty before springing a spiky trap... 





Most people fly in from Pisa, Genova, or Florence and take the train to Cinque Terre. I took the scenic route: driving from Florence to Riomaggiore - Cinque Terre's unofficial capital  - through winding mountain roads that undulated to reveal jaw dropping views of the Italian Riviera. Approaching from the nearby port city of La Spezia made for a stunning view of all five of Cinque Terre's towns lined up along the coast. 

SEEN FROM LA SPEZIA: THE 5 TOWNS OF LA CINQUE TERRE...
...ALL OF WHICH ARE CONNECTED ONLY BY TRAIN.


Cinque Terre, Italy: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Monterosso, Corniglia, Vernazza by Posh, Broke, & Bored
Cinque Terre is notoriously hard to navigate, let alone reach, which of course is part of its allure: rugged, rustic, and romantic. Cinque Terre is strictly a pedestrian-only experience, which is why it took me so long to visit - last summer my Malaysian friends (a baker's dozen of us) chose Barcelona instead for the last leg of their Europe trip because it was more 'child-friendly', but in the end the parents of the group either a) didn't even make it as far as Barcelona or b) made a last-minute decision to leave their children at home. πŸ™ƒ  No matter, I thought as I dug my espadrille-clad heels into the rocky roads, I'm finally here and nothing will stop me from enjoying Cinque Terre. Oh, the idealism...




THE FABULOUS FIVE


Everybody recognises the iconic image: rows of pastel terrace houses on steep cliffs facing the ocean, like swirls of buttercream on a cake. It's a view that's as timeless and definitive as La Sacre Coeur on Montmartre or the white and blue domed house of Santorini. What not everyone may be aware of is that Cinque Terre is actually a district in the Liguria region of Italy, composed of 5 towns (the clue itself being in the name - cinque = five, terre = land): Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza, Corniglia, and Monterosso. 


These fabulous five began life in the early medieval period as fishing villages. Not much of the architecture nor infrastructure has changed since then. All five villages seem frozen in time, unchanged for thousands of years. Unmoved by the march of time are the complicated terrace system of fields, vineyards, and gardens carved over the course of nearly two millennia into narrow layers on breathtakingly steep cliffs, overlooking harbours filled with fishing boats, all barely contained by a sprawling network of low stone walls








Then there's the relatively-recent 19th-century railway line: the only form of transport between all five towns (as cars have been banned) cutting a slanting line through Cinque Terre's otherwise impenetrable  mountains with a series of coastal tunnels. With this level of commitment to preservation and resisting corporate development (even at the price of comfort and convenience) topped with some of the most dramatic coastal scenery in the world, it's no wonder that the entire district has been a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1997.

But as a general rule, the cat's out of the bag: while Cinque Terre looks and feels like a diamond in the rough, it's hardly an undiscovered gem. Oh hell no. Every year, flocks of tourists descend on the five lands and outnumber the locals by dozens or more, what with the population being in the low thousands or less. Not even in Winter does the ardour for Cinque Terre cool - every Christmas, Manarola is literally lit, with 15,000 lights forming a nativity scene in the hills drawing pilgrims from around the region.

CINQUE TERRE IN 24 HOURS:

Start at Riomaggiore, the unofficial capital of Cinque Terre. Go down to the port for the perfect photo that encapsulates the village's charm: tiny wooden fishing boats on the harbour, dwarfed by towering cliffs dotted with colourful houses. 

Walk to the next town, Manarola, by Via dell'Amore (The Way of Love) - a short path less than a kilometre long and the easiest section of the Blue Trail that traverses the National Park. Climb the hill up to Manarola Cemetery for a sweeping vista of the village below. 

Carry on to Vernazza and Corniglia (the latter is a vantage point where you can see all five Cinque Terre villages at once) by train, stopping only to eat friggitoria (bite-sized seafood in a paper cone) and pasta with the regional specialty - pesto. End the day with dinner at Monterosso, the most 'modern' of the 5 villages.

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MANAROLA CEMETERY


There is a place in Manarola that has inspired countless artists - including poets, painters, and photographers - with what is quite literally a view to die for: Manarola Cemetery. The two-leved cemetery, perched at the very top of the vineyard, commands sweeping views of the coast below. When seen through the building's brick arches and entwined with bougainvillea, it's the quintessential 'Cinque Terre landscape', perfectly framed. To find Manarola Cemetery, look up and look out for the building inscribed in huge letters (you can almost read it from ground level) with this poem by Italian poet Vincenzo Cardarelli: 

O aperti ai venti e all’onde Liguri cimiteri! 
Una rosea tristezza vi colora 
Quando di sera, simile ad un fiore 
Che marcisce, la grande luce Si va sfacendo e muore. 

Oh open to the winds and waves Ligurian cemeteries! 

A rosy sadness colors you 
When in the evening, similar to a flower 
That has gone bad, the great light 
Fades away and dies.



Cinque Terre, Italy: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Monterosso, Corniglia, Vernazza by Posh, Broke, & Bored


Cinque Terre, Italy: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Monterosso, Corniglia, Vernazza by Posh, Broke, & Bored

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WHAT A CACTUS-TROPHE

Whatever waxing lyrical or idyllic daydreaming I had thus indulged in came to an abrupt end with an unexpected encounter with a huge prick, or rather hundreds of tiny ones. Have you ever sat on a cactus? I wouldn't recommend it. See, the very thing that makes Cinque Terre so beautiful and unique is also what makes it so hazardous - undeveloped, narrow paths covered in wild plants. And by wild plants, I mean giant cacti who don't take kindly to being backed into. You can try all you want to explain to those pricks that you need to capture as much of the landscape as possible, but with a 50mm lens and not much space there will be inevitably be some backing up. All they will do is reply pointedly - with hundreds of very fine, almost invisible thorns that will stick to your clothes and your skin for days because they'll practically impossible to remove. You can whip out the tweezers and take as many hot baths as you want, but that one stumble into a giant cacti will be a thorn in your side for days. 😭 

And that is exactly what happened to mummy when she took that gorgeous photo of me (above), and why I cut my Cinque Terre trip short to play surgeon with a pair of tweezers and a torchlight.

The actual cactus that was the source of all this grief. You prick. 😑
Having barely survived Cinque Terre, I was secretly glad that my travels had nearly come to an end - but not before a pit stop in Portofino and Pisa for one final hurrah. That said, I'm keen to go back to Cinque Terre for a proper nosy - perhaps this time wearing a suit of armour. 

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